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NIST Working to Develop Adaptable Robots That Can Assist—and Even Empower—Human Production Workers

NIST’s new Autonomous Assembly Testbed includes an automated guided vehicle (left), conveyers, mannequins and an underslung robot arm (right).

Guest blog by Albert J. Wavering, the Chief of the Intelligent Systems Division of the Engineering Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Robots have explored Mars, descended into volcanoes, and roamed the ocean depths.  Today, they also perform humdrum chores, such as vacuuming and waxing floors.  And in between the ordinary and the extraordinary, robots are carrying out a growing array of tasks, from painting and spot-welding in factories to delivering food trays in hospitals.

But, when it comes to these automated machines, you haven’t seen anything yet, especially in the manufacturing world, where robots were first put to use 50 years ago in a General Motors factory.  In fact, the first factory robot became something of celebrity, earning an appearance, along with one of its inventors, on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Even today, however, manufacturing robots are akin to electromechanical hulks that blindly perform relatively simple, repetitive jobs and—Tonight Show demo notwithstanding—must be safely separated from human workers by fences and gates.

In laboratories around the world, the race is on to build a new generation of robots that are smarter, more flexible, and far more versatile than the current one.  A successful leap to more adept and adaptable robots could set the stage for a revolution in U.S. manufacturing that reaches from the largest factories to the smallest job shops.

Automation technology has found a place performing repetitive and, often, dirty and dangerous factory tasks. It also has helped U.S. manufacturers to achieve productivity increases that are the envy of the world.

But the best could be yet to come.  The next wave of robots could be the springboard to new U.S. companies and new domestic manufacturing jobs.

The Fourth of July, 2011: Independence Day

Painting of signers of the Declaration of Independence

On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, setting the 13 colonies on the road to freedom as a sovereign nation. Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration is a formal explanation of why Congress had voted on July 2 to declare independence from Great Britain, more than a year after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. The birthday of the United States of America—Independence Day—is celebrated on July 4, the day the wording of the Declaration was approved by Congress.  See an image of the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives.

As always, this most American of holidays will be marked by parades, fireworks and backyard barbecues across the nation. In 1776, the estimated number of people living in the newly-independent nation was 2.5 million. This year, the Department of Commerce’s Census Bureau estimate is 311.7 million.

For fascinating figures on the Fourth’s fireworks, flags, fanfares, firings (grills) and more, see the Census Bureau’s Facts for Features.

Resources for Manufacturers - A Month in Review

All month long, Commerce.gov highlighted programs, resources and efforts made to help American manufacturers grow faster and become more competitive. Why? Because the manufacturing sector has been a main driver of the economic recovery over the past two years, with over 230,000 jobs added since the beginning of 2010. The manufacturing sector currently employs over 11 million Americans, providing good-paying jobs for millions of families and serving as the backbone of communities across the country – a brighter future for American manufacturers will mean a brighter future for the American economy.

If you missed any of our posts, here is a quick digest:

The US-India Economic Partnership – a 21st Century Partnership Built on Innovation and Collaboration.

Assistant Secretary Camunez with one of the Research Directors at the GE Jack Welch Technology Center in Bangalore, India.

Guest blog by Michael Camuñez, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Market Access and Compliance.

President  Obama has observed that “The relationship between the United States and India-- bound by our shared interests and values -- will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”

This week, my first trip to India has focused on deepening the economic and trade dimensions of our bilateral partnership. I began in Mumbai, passed through Bangalore, and ended in Delhi.

The stunning growth of the Indian economy is well known.  India has embraced global trade and competition, cutting its top applied tariff rates on industrial goods from more than 100% before liberalization to about 10-12% currently. Today, annual growth rates in excess of eight percent percent have become commonplace. 

As part of this story, the US-India partnership has been hard at work, with great success. The United States is the largest source of foreign investment in India. In 2009, total U.S. FDI in India was $18.6 billion, up 12 percent from 2008.

American corporations who’ve set up shop in India are partnering with leading local companies and professionals to do great things.

USPTO Director Kappos Talks Jobs, Innovation and Patent Reform with Kojo Nnamdi

USPTO Director Kappos Talks Jobs, Innovation and Patent Reform with Kojo Nnamdi

Today USPTO Director David Kappos was interviewed by popular Washington, D.C. radio host Kojo Nnamdi for a segment focused on patents as a vehicle to create new jobs, the patent reform legislation currently pending in Congress, and improvements made at the USPTO under Director Kappos’ leadership. 

Topics discussed in the interview included the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act and how a change from a first-to-invent system to a first-to-file system as called for in the legislation would impact the innovation community. Kappos noted that this is really a first-inventor-to-file system, meaning that the person who files the patent application has to be the inventor. He pointed to this system as one that is more transparent, simple and objective and one that provides greater certainty for inventors.

Commerce Department's Census Bureau Announces Management and Structural Reforms that will Improve Efficiency and Cut Costs

Map Depicting Current Census Bureau Regional Office Structure

Today, the Commerce Department’s U.S. Census Bureau announced the first realignment of its national field office structure in 50 years and management reforms that will improve efficiency, reduce costs and enhance data quality. The changes will take place gradually over the next 18 months and reduce the number of regional offices from 12 to six, saving an estimated $15 million to $18 million annually beginning in 2014.

Increasing efficiency, cutting waste and reforming Washington has been a priority for the Obama Administration since day one, and this consolidation supports the administration’s ongoing effort to make government more efficient, effective and accountable to the American people. It also builds on the work of Census Bureau Director Robert Groves and his management team in bringing in the 2010 Census on time and 25 percent under budget, saving nearly $1.9 billion.

For more information, please see today's announcement on the White House Web site.

Earlier this month, President Obama and Vice President Biden launched the Campaign to Cut Waste with the goal of eliminating misspent tax dollars in every agency and department across the federal government. Whether the budget is in surplus or deficit, every dollar must be spent as efficiently as possible, but in a time when so many Americans have had to cut back, our mission takes on added urgency.

Made in America continues to shine

Scott Paul, Executive Director for the Alliance for American Manufacturing

Guest post by Scott Paul, Executive Director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

A strong and vibrant manufacturing base is essential to our nation's economic stability, a strong middle class, and employment opportunities for young men and women across America. The good news is that manufacturing output and employment have been growing over the past 15 months, and in many ways, the sector has played an outsized role in our economic recovery. But our nation will never realize its full potential to grow the manufacturing sector of our economy without a robust strategy and aggressive set of public policies to complement private sector efforts by business and labor to maintain a globally competitive industry.

The case for a permanent capacity for strategic planning on our manufacturing base, evolving to make use of our workers’ skills and the latest technology as well as responding to global trends, could not be stronger when one considers that no matter how innovative or competitive individual manufacturers may be, there are some problems they simply cannot solve on their own. This was recently articulated by Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

  • Research and development can be expensive and hard to capture profits, such as in advanced batteries;
  • No single firm could possibly coordinate national projects like the smart grid or internet;
  • Firms often need assistance in applying academic innovations to the production process;
  • Manufacturers often face barriers to accessing credit for entry, expansion, and innovation; and
  • Manufacturers need assistance in exporting as well as push back against unfair trade practices.

The Commerce Department leads the federal government’s efforts to assist manufacturers with these challenges. For example, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program provides on-the-ground services. The International Trade Administration (ITA) helps manufacturers boost exports and seek relief from unfair trade practices. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) offers cutting edge research on production, innovation, and commercialization.

Trade Promotion Coordinating Committee Releases 2011 National Export Strategy: Powering the National Export Initiative to Congress

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, on behalf of the Trade Promotion Coordinating Committee, today released to Congress the 2011 National Export Strategy: Powering the National Export Initiative (PDF). The report reinforces the importance of U.S. exports of goods and services, which in 2010 totaled $1.84 trillion, an increase of nearly 17% over 2009 levels, and supported more than 9 million jobs in the United States.

Starting with this report, the annual National Export Strategy will fill the essential role of tracking and measuring the federal government’s progress in implementing the NEI. The TPCC will assess new opportunities and seek new ways for its agencies to improve coordination and increase effectiveness.  The National Export Strategy identifies the four areas of focus during 2011:

  • Collaborating with states, metropolitan areas, and border communities to help U.S. companies successfully export around the globe;
  • Encouraging exports by U.S. companies selling technologies in high-growth sectors;
  • Ensuring better data and measurement of U.S. services sector exporting; and
  • Removing barriers to trade, including through passage of the South Korea, Colombia and Panama trade agreements.

Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Canada: Intertwined through Manufacturing and Trade

Guest blog by Nicole Lamb-Hale, Assistant Secretary for Manufacturing and Services

Today, I joined members of the President’s Export Council (PEC), U.S. and Canadian officials and U.S. and Canadian businesses to discuss border trade opportunities and challenges between American and Canadian companies. Canada and the United States share a unique relationship = we share not only borders, but economies.

Canada and the United States’ economies are greatly intertwined. The two nations share the world’s largest and most comprehensive trading relationship, which supports millions of jobs in each country. However, Canada and the United States don’t simply trade goods with each other: we build things together and rely on each other’s markets to design and build products that compete in global markets.

In 2010, U.S. Exports to Canada were worth $249.1 billion, 19 percent of total U.S. exports. These exports include motor vehicles and parts, agricultural and construction machinery, computer equipment, iron and steel, basic chemicals and petroleum and coal products.  
The Administration will continue to work hard to help Michigan companies grow by breaking into foreign markets, increasing exports and creating jobs.
The simple fact is that the more American – and Michigan – companies export, the more they produce. The more they produce, the more workers they need. And that means jobs. Good paying jobs here at home.

Agencies Working Together Results in Manufacturers Now Hiring

Alternate Text

Cross-posted on the NIST MEP blog

UEMC, Inc., a woman-owned manufacturer located in San Antonio, Texas, is now hiring. The company has over 50 years of experience in contract sewing, screen printing and textile related manufacturing … and now sustainable manufacturing practices.

In October 2009, UEMC, Inc. participated in a local Lean. Clean. Energy. program as part of a national manufacturing sustainable effort. Five Federal Government Agencies—Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Labor, Small Business Administration and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) of The National Institute of Standards and Technology – have jointly created the E3 Initiative (Energy, Economy, Environment), which is focused on helping manufacturers implement sustainable manufacturing practices. The E3 program is designed to capture the knowledge and tools of the five agencies to run effective sustainability initiatives across the nation.

The E3 program benefits manufacturers throughout the country not only with cost savings, but also by providing access to technical and financial resources.

That’s exactly what UEMC, Inc. experienced. Linda Jordan, the CFO of UEMC, was quick to agree that E3 is about much more than just saving the company money and energy: